Basketball has been a very long, winding, and lately, rocky road for New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion.
“It’s been a pretty long run. It’s been a pretty rough, long run, if you hear what I’m saying, and I know that – I’m not totally blind to that,” said Herrion, reflecting on his 29-year Division I coaching career on a recent Thursday morning.
Herrion has spent parts of four decades in the college coaching ranks, starting as an assistant to newly-hired Boston University head coach Mike Jarvis in 1985, the last 23 years of which as a head coach. It is a head coaching career that has been defined by skyrocketing successes early, including six 20-win seasons, three NCAA Tournament berths, three America East Coach of the Year awards and an NCAA Tournament shocker over heavily favored fifth-seed Memphis over his eight seasons as the head coach of Drexel.
And it is also a career that has been defined frustrating seasons of futility as of late, with losing records in 13 of his last 14 seasons, spread across stints at Eastern Carolina and UNH – two notoriously tough programs to win at. Coming off a 6-24 season, the worst record during his nine years in Durham, and staring down the final two years of his contract, Herrion would seem to be in a precarious position. But according to the head coach, his focus remains solely on the court and on his players.
“I totally understand our situation when you look at contracts and you look at things of that nature, I’ve got one more year left. We know what we’ve got to do, no one needs to remind me of that, I’m not blind to it,” he said.
After nearly three decades on the autobahn that is the head coaching highway, and the mental and physical grind of disappointing seasons and the growing volume of discontent from his fan base, one could hardly blame the 56-year-old if he took the next off ramp onto the slow, scenic route and pulled over onto the shoulder for some rest — a cushy gig as a high major assistant, or a small college athletic director, or even prep school coach or AAU director, or even some time to simply relax and enjoy retirement. But that just isn’t in Herrion’s DNA.
“I think the first thing that keeps me going, and I really mean this, is I’ve got an unbelievable passion for the game – basketball is in my blood,” said Herrion. “If I let that (losing, criticism and an expiring contract) dominate me, I wouldn’t be here – I would have gave this up. “
While the highlights of Herrion’s journey may have been his three NCAA Tournament appearances, the win over Memphis, and his discovery and mentorship of future NBA Malik Rose, some of his fondest memories are of his first steps in his basketball journey, which began almost as soon as he learned how to walk.
“I grew up in a basketball family,” said Herrion, whose late father, Jim, was a legendary high school coach in the New York City Catholic League, before a stint as an assistant at Holy Cross and a head coaching career at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and whose brother, Tom, is a current assistant at Georgia Tech.
“When I talk about being brought up in basketball, I’m not talking about just being in a gym when my father coached and shooting around on a side hoop, this was like 365 days a year. It’s something that got into my blood.”
According to Herrion, the defining moments of his coaching career weren’t cutting down championship nets or setting foot on the NCAA court, but long summers spent under the sun on cracked and sweltering blacktops.
“From age four years old to 15 years old I would go to summer basketball camp, and I’m talking not to like a college or a showcase, with an air-conditioned dormitory and an indoor court,” he remembered, palpable excitement in his voice. “I used to go up into the Catskill Mountains, to these old-time, outdoor courts, cabins, that was my life. We would leave after school got done in June, and we would come home right before Labor Day and the start of school. I would spend every summer there.” (more…)